Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Scene from 1939 movie 'The Wizard of Oz'

(Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)

To Find America, Follow the Yellow Brick Road

• July 04, 2012 • 4:00 AM

(Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)

New books, movies, and plays keep spilling out of the perennial wellspring of Oz. Each reveals a facet of that fabled land—and of the generation that produces the work.

ALISSA BURGER GREW UP on an Iowa farm, not all that far from Dorothy Gale’s Kansas. So it’s no surprise that, even more than most children of her generation, she was enthralled by the yearly telecast of The Wizard of Oz. “I was absolutely terrified of the sequence where the face of the Wicked Witch pops up in the magic ball,” she recalls. “I would always cover my eyes and scream.”

Burger remains Oz-obsessed decades later, but the fear she felt has been replaced by fascination. In her new book, The Wizard of Oz as American Myth (McFarland, $35), she charts the various incarnations of the story in print, on film and television, and in the theater, and shows how they reflect the changing attitudes of Americans regarding the role of women, race relations, and the idea of “home.” As she pulls back the curtain on this fantastic tale, we realize we’ve really been looking at ourselves.

Author L. Frank Baum

Author L. Frank Baum

Since L. Frank Baum’s original novel, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, appeared in 1900, his magical land has been regularly revisited. To date, 39 authorized sequels have been published, including more than a dozen penned by Baum himself. The first of many stage musicals based on the material opened in 1902; its descendants include the Motown-inspired The Wiz from 1975, and the still-running Wicked, which opened in 2003. The iconic 1939 movie is just the best-known of the more than dozen film adaptations, and two more are on the immediate horizon: the animated Dorothy of Oz, opening this year, and Oz, the Great and Powerful, director Sam Raimi’s look at the Wizard’s early life, which arrives in cinemas next spring.

Why so many trips down the Yellow Brick Road? “Everybody knows the story—it’s a familiar touchstone,” says Burger, an assistant professor in the Liberal Arts and Sciences Division at the State University of New York, Delhi. “But there’s so much flexibility there, so much room for reinterpretation.”

Actresses Natalie Daradich and Vicki Noon from musical 'Wicked'

Actresses Natalie Daradich (Good Witch of the North) and Vicki Noon (Wicked Witch of the West) from musical “Wicked,” which reimagined Baum’s wicked witch as a sympathetic character.

Burger explains that Baum’s story follows the basic journey, as laid out by Joseph Campbell, of the mythic hero: the central character leaves home, has fantastic adventures, conquers an enemy, acquires self-knowledge, and returns safely, bearing newfound wisdom. While that describes leading men from Gilgamesh to Bilbo Baggins, Baum conceived this classic scenario in one radically different way: he made his hero a heroine. Baum’s mother-in-law was the feminist leader Matilda Joslyn Gage, and according to Burger, she “was also the person who encouraged him to write down the stories he told to children.” Given their close relationship, it makes sense that the Oz books are “full of pretty strong female characters. Dorothy doesn’t have to be taken care of. Patriarchal power is questioned really dynamically, as we see the Wizard for what he really is”—which is to say, an empty suit.

Granted, at the end of the first book (and the 1939 movie), Dorothy assumes a motherlike role, helping male characters such as the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion find their inner strength. Having done so, she is content to return home to Kansas, presumably to resume the role of dutiful niece. But Baum upends that status quo in his sequels, in which “Dorothy ends up taking Aunt Em and Uncle Henry back to Oz with her, and we see very powerful matriarchal societies—some positive, some negative,” Burger says.

Poster from musical The Wiz

On one level, the story’s various permutations reflect our evolving notions of the proper role of the woman in American society. In the original, the female character who actively seeks power, the Wicked Witch of the West, is a monster who must be destroyed, while the “good girl” heroine is torn between the longing for adventure (somewhere over the rainbow) and safety (there’s no place like home). In The Wiz, “home” is more of a psychological concept than a physical place, while the musical Wicked sets aside the nuclear family in favor of “a fun focus on female friendship.” Rather than representing the archetypes of good and evil, Burger notes, that the “good” and “bad” witches in the phenomenally popular Wicked “are presented as fully fleshed-out, rounded characters that girls really relate to.”

Burger is eager to discover whether Dorothy of Oz will present still more complex versions of these familiar characters. “The message boards on the first trailer were full of comments like ‘This looks really stupid’ and ‘That’s not how Dorothy is supposed to look,’” she says. “Each new incarnation produces that kind of initial backlash, but it gradually becomes another piece of the puzzle.” Or another brick in that golden road.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

December 18 • 4:00 PM

How I Navigated Life as a Newly Sober Mom

Saying “no” to my kids was harder than saying “no” to alcohol. But for their sake and mine, I had to learn to put myself first sometimes.


December 18 • 2:00 PM

Women in Apocalyptic Fiction Shaving Their Armpits

Because our interest in realism apparently only goes so far.


December 18 • 12:00 PM

The Paradox of Choice, 10 Years Later

Paul Hiebert talks to psychologist Barry Schwartz about how modern trends—social media, FOMO, customer review sites—fit in with arguments he made a decade ago in his highly influential book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less.


December 18 • 10:00 AM

What It’s Like to Spend a Few Hours in the Church of Scientology

Wrestling with thetans, attempting to unlock a memory bank, and a personality test seemingly aimed at people with depression. This is Scientology’s “dissemination drill” for potential new members.


December 18 • 8:00 AM

Gendering #BlackLivesMatter: A Feminist Perspective

Black men are stereotyped as violent, while black women are rendered invisible. Here’s why the gendering of black lives matters.


December 18 • 7:06 AM

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.


December 18 • 6:00 AM

The Very Weak and Complicated Links Between Mental Illness and Gun Violence

Vanderbilt University’s Jonathan Metzl and Kenneth MacLeish address our anxieties and correct our assumptions.


December 18 • 4:00 AM

Should Movies Be Rated RD for Reckless Driving?

A new study finds a link between watching films featuring reckless driving and engaging in similar behavior years later.


December 17 • 4:00 PM

How to Run a Drug Dealing Network in Prison

People tend not to hear about the prison drug dealing operations that succeed. Substance.com asks a veteran of the game to explain his system.


December 17 • 2:00 PM

Gender Segregation of Toys Is on the Rise

Charting the use of “toys for boys” and “toys for girls” in American English.


December 17 • 12:41 PM

Why the College Football Playoff Is Terrible But Better Than Before

The sample size is still embarrassingly small, but at least there’s less room for the availability cascade.


December 17 • 11:06 AM

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.


December 17 • 10:37 AM

A Public Lynching in Sproul Plaza

When photographs of lynching victims showed up on a hallowed site of democracy in action, a provocation was issued—but to whom, by whom, and why?


December 17 • 8:00 AM

What Was the Job?

This was the year the job broke, the year we accepted a re-interpretation of its fundamental bargain and bought in to the push to get us to all work for ourselves rather than each other.


December 17 • 6:00 AM

White Kids Will Be Kids

Even the “good” kids—bound for college, upwardly mobile—sometimes break the law. The difference? They don’t have much to fear. A professor of race and social movements reflects on her teenage years and faces some uncomfortable realities.



December 16 • 4:00 PM

How Fear of Occupy Wall Street Undermined the Red Cross’ Sandy Relief Effort

Red Cross responders say there was a ban on working with the widely praised Occupy Sandy relief group because it was seen as politically unpalatable.


December 16 • 3:30 PM

Murder! Mayhem! And That’s Just the Cartoons!

New research suggests deaths are common features of animated features aimed at children.


December 16 • 1:43 PM

In Tragedy, Empathy Still Dependent on Proximity

In spite of an increasingly connected world, in the face of adversity, a personal touch is most effective.


December 16 • 12:00 PM

The ‘New York Times’ Is Hooked on Drug du Jour Journalism

For the paper of record, addiction is always about this drug or that drug rather than the real causes.


December 16 • 10:00 AM

What Is the Point of Academic Books?

Ultimately, they’re meant to disseminate knowledge. But their narrow appeal makes them expensive to produce and harder to sell.


December 16 • 8:00 AM

Unjust and Unwell: The Racial Issues That Could Be Affecting Your Health Care

Physicians and medical students have the same problems with implicit bias as the rest of us.


December 16 • 6:00 AM

If You Get Confused Just Listen to the Music Play

Healing the brain with the Grateful Dead.


December 16 • 4:00 AM

Another Casualty of the Great Recession: Trust

Research from Britain finds people who were laid off from their jobs expressed lower levels of generalized trust.


December 15 • 4:00 PM

When Charter Schools Are Non-Profit in Name Only

Some charters pass along nearly all their money to for-profit companies hired to manage the schools. It’s an arrangement that’s raising eyebrows.


Follow us


Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.

The Hidden Psychology of the Home Ref

That old myth of home field bias isn’t a myth at all; it’s a statistical fact.

A Word of Caution to the Holiday Deal-Makers

Repeat customers—with higher return rates and real bargain-hunting prowess—can have negative effects on a company’s net earnings.

Crowdfunding Works for Science

Scientists just need to put forth some effort.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.